Cultural campaigner and poetic free spirit Michael Horovitz dies aged 86
A veteran poet of energy and spirit who determinedly kept the flame of the 1960s burning for another 50 years and beyond has died at the age of 86. In 1965 Michael Horovitz helped to persuade Allen Ginsberg and fellow US Beat poets to perform at the Royal Albert Hall at what became the legendary International Poetry Incarnation, witnessed by thousands. In 2015, at the age of 80, he organised a successful festival in commemoration of that event at the Roundhouse in London.
In reporting his death on Thursday, the Poetry Society described him as an “anarcho-troubadour”. As well as the poetry Incarnation and Reincarnation, 50 years apart, Horovitz was certainly a cultural whirlwind.
In his last undergraduate year at Oxford, Horovitz and friends put together the first issue of New Departures, featuring among others Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Stevie Smith. As soon as it appeared in print, he and his co-editors went on the road with Live New Departures. He also co-ordinated other poetry events such as Jazz Poetry Super Jams and Poetry Olympics festivals.
In 1969, Penguin Books published Horovitz's Children of Albion anthology, sub-titled Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain, with the cover featuring an engraving by William Blake, his inspiration. In a lengthy Afterword to the anthology, Horovitz said: “At Oxford I saw budding talents buried alive, most elegantly – taught – to lie.” He espoused live performance of poetry, often fused with music, particularly jazz: “We went on the road in spontaneous accord, to revive the oral traditions by which the word has resounded through the ages.”
In 1971, Horovitz published The Wolverhampton Wanderer, with illustrations and photographs by Peter Blake, Adrian Henri, Pete Morgan, Jeff Nuttall, David Hockney, as well as Horovitz and others. It is a visual and literary elegy to the culture surrounding football up to the 1960s, celebrating not only Wolves and its supporters, but also Arsenal, Spurs, and teams from the north.
He performed with jazz and blues musicians, including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who subsequently with Eric Clapton formed the blues supergroup Cream, and their regular song lyricist, poet Pete Brown, and later collaborated with musicians such as Paul Weller, Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn.
In 1980 he launched the Poetry Olympics, partly to counter the “nationalism” of Margaret Thatcher’s threat to boycott the Moscow Olympics, and partly because at that time poetry in Britain “was an all-time low”. In an interview with Write Out Loud in 2015 Horovitz said: “It seemed to quite a few of us poets and our other arts associates pretty unsporting … to try to keep British athletes away from the Moscow Games. And the UK – insofar as there was true interest in verse – was very much in thrall to the influences and examples set by the likes of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, talented enough writers, but counter-productive in the orthodoxies they solicited and promoted.”
In politics he remained a radical –how could he not? – referring in his Write Out Loud interview in characteristic style to “the Thatcher/B-Liar/Camoronic Nillennium”. A feature of his joyous if eccentric live ensemble performances was his playing of a personalised instrument he dubbed the “anglo-saxophone”, a kind of kazoo, pictured left.
In that interview, Horovitz told how he and his family were forced to flee Germany in the 1930s: “I was the youngest of 10 European-Jewish refugee children who were brought to England in 1937-38. With various other family and friends we got moved around different suburban, Thames valley and other home counties residences, often getting to what my parents had hurriedly picked out as what looked like possibly pleasant as well as low-rent homes on paper, without pre-viewing them. I remember arriving in the small hours in a moonlit winterscape at a deserted ex-farmhouse, I think near Pangbourne, Berkshire, with snow pelting through broken upstairs windows and cows huddled in the dilapidated ground floor rooms.”
I interviewed him at the time of his 80th birthday for Write Out Loud, and was impressed by many things about him, not least his tenacious mastery of publicity. Earlier this year, as well as giving us a generous endorsement for our fundraising campaign, he was lobbying for a review of a book by his partner and soulmate Vanessa Vie, pictured right. We complied, of course.
He was married to the poet Frances Horovitz, who died in 1983, and he is survived by his son Adam, a well-known contemporary poet. I heard the sad and somehow surprising news of his death via Adam’s Facebook page on Thursday, when I was in Bellingham, Northumberland, a village that is featured in a poem of Philip Larkin’s called ‘Show Saturday’. It seemed an ironic place to be, given Michael Horovitz’s antagonism to Larkin’s poetry.
Yet Horovitz said at a New Departures performance in London a few years ago, that although he disapproved of poets that admired Larkin’s poetry, he had found the man himself to be “a charming guy. We shared a great love of jazz.” At that same performance, when his show had rather characteristically overrun its allotted time, he said philosophically: “Poetry readings are never finished, only abandoned.”
Adam Horovitz said of his father on BBC Radio 4’s Last Words programme, which also included a poetic tribute from John Hegley: “Without my father … and without a few more besides … we wouldn’t have the poetry scene we have now, which is multitudinous and full of different voices.” He added: “He was about the fusion of everything.”